BlueScope dispute set to escalate

The industrial battle between BlueScope Steel and unions is set to ramp up after workers blocked the main entrance to the Port Kembla steelworks for more than an hour yesterday.

The mass meeting, part of a four-hour protected stoppage, was the first action by the combined unions and marked an escalation in the dispute over a new enterprise agreement.

Frustration with BlueScope was obvious at the rally. More than 300 steelworkers voted unanimously to continue rolling stoppages, condemn the company and seek a further meeting to try to resolve the dispute, delivering a ringing endorsement of the industrial campaign.

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Though members also raised questions for the unions, speeches by union officials were applauded.

The upshot of the meeting is likely to be an increase in action across departments.

Australian Workers Union Port Kembla branch secretary Wayne Phillips said the campaign was to protect working conditions that BlueScope wanted to remove.

Sticking points included extended sick leave and maintaining departmental agreements in the new award. Unions have also asked for a 3per cent pay rise in the third year of the agreement, rather than a 2.5per cent increase.

‘‘All we’re trying to do is maintain our current conditions,’’ Mr Phillips said.

‘‘We gave up some of our pay increase last agreement...to settle for a better sick leave overall policy.

‘‘Changing the extended sick- leave payment will make bugger all difference to the bottom line, it really won’t, and the company’s saying it’s an added cost.’’

Mr Phillips also said morale inside the steelworks was the lowest he had seen, a sentiment echoed by others.

‘‘People on the shop floor haven’t got a bloody clue whether they’ve got a job today, tomorrow or next month, irrespective of the current dispute,’’ he said.

Measuring the impact of the rolling stoppages on BlueScope was difficult.

Mr Phillips said the campaign had a minimal effect on members but maximised disruption to the company. ‘‘If they seriously want to resolve it then they’ve got to meet,’’ he said.

BlueScope refused comment on the dispute yesterday.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union industrial officer Brad Hattenfels said the stoppages had been effective.

He said unions essentially wanted to roll over the current deal, adding that workers hadn’t received a pay rise since early 2011.

Mechanical technician Wayne Hartman said rolling over the agreement was ‘‘common sense’’.

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